The Sundial by Shirley Jackson



  SHIRLEY JACKSON was born in San Francisco in 1916. She first received wide critical acclaim for her short story “The Lottery,” which was first published in The New Yorker in 1948. Her novels—which include The Sundial, The Bird’s Nest, Hangsaman, The Road Through the Wall, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and The Haunting of Hill House—are characterized by her use of realistic settings for tales that often involve elements of horror and the occult. Raising Demons and Life Among the Savages are her two works of nonfiction. She died in 1965.

  VICTOR LAVALLE is the author of the short story collection Slapboxing with Jesus; three novels, The Ecstatic, Big Machine, and The Devil in Silver; and an e-book–only novella, Lucretia and the Kroons. He has been the recipient of numerous awards, including a Whiting Writers’ Award, a United States Artists Ford Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a PEN/Open Book Award, an American Book Award, and the key to Southeast Queens. He teaches at Columbia University.


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  First published in the United States of America by Farrar, Straus & Cudahy 1958

  Published in Penguin Books 1986

  This edition with a foreword by Victor LaValle published 2014

  Copyright © 1958 by Shirley Jackson

  Foreword copyright © 2014 by Victor LaValle

  Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.


  Jackson, Shirley, 1916–1965.

  The sundial / Shirley Jackson ; foreword by Victor LaValle.

  pages ; cm.—(Penguin classics)

  ISBN 978-0-14-310706-4

  ISBN 978-0-698-14820-8 (eBook)

  I. Title.

  PS3519.A392S9 2014





  About the Author

  Title Page




  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  For Bernice Baumgarten


  In 2007 my girlfriend and I went to see the latest Coen brothers’ film, No Country for Old Men, at a movie theater near Union Square in New York. The place was jammed, but we got decent seats. We’d been dating for a year by that time. Emily and I knew each other pretty well, but it had still been only a year, and it occurred to me, and I’m sure to her, that you could spend that long dating someone and still not know her, understand her, on some essential level. You’re enjoying your days together but also waiting for that moment when you see a flash of the soul, the person’s true essence, so you can decide if this relationship is truly serious. I wasn’t thinking about this stuff consciously as the lights dimmed and the movie started, but it was there in the atmosphere of our relationship. Time to get serious or get gone. Then the predawn imagery of Texas—rough, lovely open country—appeared on the screen. Tommy Lee Jones spoke in a voice-over as the images played on. (“I was sheriff of this county when I was twenty-five years old.”) The audience, Emily and I included, grew quiet.

  Toward the end of this astounding film Tommy Lee Jones, who has been playing a weary old lawman, sits at the kitchen table of his home with his wife. By this point No Country for Old Men has morphed from a riveting crime drama into a parable about death, the one inescapable fate. Death in one form or another finds whomever it pleases in the film, and it will not be reasoned with, escaped, or outgunned. By the time Tommy Lee Jones sits in that kitchen his weariness seems well earned. His character has hoped that his earnestness, his competence, his goodness will spare him the destiny that has come for so many others. He tells his wife about two dreams he’s had the night before. The second one is both chilling and resigned. The lawman finally grasps that the end will come for him, as it did for his father, as it does for every woman and man.

  While Tommy Lee Jones was reciting these dreams, I found my eyes drawn away from the screen for a moment. Something was moving through the theater. I looked to my left, and there I saw a boy, probably nine or ten years old. He looked tall, but that was just because he was very thin. He had the reddish brown skin and large eyes of an Ethiopian, that striking beauty that can seem almost otherworldly in certain contexts. Certain contexts like right then in that dark theater.

  The boy walked up the aisle, scanning the room. His head swiveled left and right. His large, bright eyes seemed to pan across every face in the theater. All the while Tommy Lee Jones’s voice thundered on about his spectral dreams.

  Emily, to my right, must have noticed my distraction. She inched forward in her chair. She was looking at this boy now too. Her instinct was to help him. She guessed, as I did, that he must’ve been looking for his seat in the dark, scanning for the empty chair where he’d probably just been sitting with his parents. But what parents would bring their nine- or ten-year-old boy to a Coen brothers’ movie? Especially this one. The boy’s age made him seem as out of place as his appearance made him seem from another world. I looked up at the screen and Tommy Lee Jones had finished his speech and now he sighed and his eyes looked wet with the sudden knowing of what his second dream meant. At that moment Emily raised her left hand to wave to the boy, the one scanning all our faces with those impossibly bright eyes. But I grabbed her hand and pushed it back down onto the handrest.

  “Don’t call to him,” I whispered. I knew she couldn’t understand, and yet I said it.

  Emily looked at me in the dark. Our faces were only slightly visible in the light cast by the movie screen. She narrowed her eyes.

  “Because he’s death?” she said.

  It’s the moment I knew Emily would be my wife.


  So why did I just tell you that anecdote?

  I’m trying to relate what it felt like the first time I read Shirley Jackson’s fiction. What it feels like each time I’ve read her work since. I didn’t grow up in a small New England town like the one in The Sundial. I was raised in an apartment building in Queens, not in a sprawling, slightly sinister mansion like the one where the Halloran family resides. And the LaValles sure didn’t have some storied patriarch whose name we uttered like a prayer, as the Hallorans so often do in this book. And yet when I open The Sundial, I feel the same sense of kinship, of recognition as I did in that movie theater when my soon-to-be wife seemed to read my mind.

  The Sundial shares some of the characteristics of Shirley Jackson’s most famous works of fiction. There’s the enormous, imposing estate, as in The Haunting of Hill House; the once great but now diminished fa
mily, as in We Have Always Lived in the Castle; and even the doom-laden atmosphere of her classic short story “The Lottery.” So what makes The Sundial stand out? Why is it worth reading? Because The Sundial is funny as hell.

  This may surprise some readers. An eerie work of suspense by one of the great American masters of literary unease couldn’t also make you laugh so loud you wake your sleeping wife, could it? If you accept the caveat that by funny I don’t mean “light” or “silly” or “cheerful,” then the answer is an easy yes. The Sundial is written with the kind of humor that would make a guillotine laugh.

  The novel begins, after all, with the family returning from a funeral for Lionel Halloran, the heir to the Halloran estate and all its fortune. Lionel was pushed down the main stairs in the mansion and fell down dead. Who did the ghastly deed? His own mother. As the extended family returns home, here’s the conversation between Lionel’s widow and the couple’s ten-year-old daughter, Fancy.

  Young Mrs. Halloran, looking after her mother-in-law, said without hope, “Maybe she will drop dead on the doorstep. Fancy dear, would you like to see Granny drop dead on the doorstep?”

  “Yes, mother.” Fancy pulled at the long skirt of the black dress her grandmother had put on her.

  I’m not spoiling anything by quoting this horrifically hilarious exchange because it occurs in the first two paragraphs of the book! In that moment I imagine Jackson peering over those round-framed glasses in her famous author photograph, her eyes gleeful, because things are going to get so much worse.

  The Hallorans, and their extended hangers-on, become a kind of cult when one of them, Aunt Fanny, receives prophetic messages from her long departed, much revered father. He has appeared to his only daughter to warn that the world is soon to end. All those in the Halloran home must prepare for the coming doom. Shut the doors and windows, close themselves off from the cursed world. Prepare to become the last of the human race. In quick time the family members are drawn into paranoia and conspiracy. They come to believe the prophecy. They have been chosen to inherit the earth. Jackson proceeds to illustrate, in rich detail, just how sad such a fate would be. The whole world ends, and this is all that’s left? Jackson spares no one her precise, perceptive eye. Sadder still is how much I recognize myself, from my worst moments, in one character or another. What saves me from despair is Jackson’s wit, her deadpan demolition of human foibles. For me, that kind of reading experience is essential, and when I discovered Shirley Jackson, it was as if she’d understood what I wanted, what I needed, and set it all down on the page long before I was even born. That recognition is profound, life changing, whether it comes in a darkened movie theater or between the covers of a novel.

  Shirley Jackson enjoyed notoriety and commercial success within her lifetime, and yet it still hardly seems like enough for a writer so singular. When I meet readers and other writers of my generation, I find that mentioning her is like uttering a holy name. The grins we share. The blush of reverence. She doesn’t appear to us in prophetic dreams but in her books.



  After the funeral they came back to the house, now indisputably Mrs. Halloran’s. They stood uneasily, without any certainty, in the large lovely entrance hall, and watched Mrs. Halloran go into the right wing of the house to let Mr. Halloran know that Lionel’s last rites had gone off without melodrama. Young Mrs. Halloran, looking after her mother-in-law, said without hope, “Maybe she will drop dead on the doorstep. Fancy, dear, would you like to see Granny drop dead on the doorstep?”

  “Yes, mother.” Fancy pulled at the long skirt of the black dress her grandmother had put on her. Young Mrs. Halloran felt that black was not suitable for a ten-year-old girl, and that the dress was too long in any case, and certainly too plain and coarse for a family of the Halloran prestige; she had had an asthma attack on the very morning of the funeral to prove her point, but Fancy had been put into the black dress nevertheless. The long black skirt had entertained her during the funeral, and in the car, and if it had not been for her grandmother’s presence she might very well have enjoyed the day absolutely.

  “I am going to pray for it as long as I live,” said young Mrs. Halloran, folding her hands together devoutly.

  “Shall I push her?” Fancy asked. “Like she pushed my daddy?”

  “Fancy!” said Miss Ogilvie.

  “Let her say it if she wants,” young Mrs. Halloran said. “I want her to remember it, anyway. Say it again, Fancy baby.”

  “Granny killed my daddy,” said Fancy obediently. “She pushed him down the stairs and killed him. Granny did it. Didn’t she?”

  Miss Ogilvie raised her eyes to heaven, but lowered her voice in respect for the sad occasion of the day, “Maryjane,” she said, “you are perverting that child’s mind and very possibly ruining her chances of inheriting—”

  “On this day,” young Mrs. Halloran said, putting her mouse face into an expression of reproachful dignity, “I want it clearly understood by all of you, everyone here, and remembered always, if you don’t mind. Fancy is a fatherless orphan today because that nasty old woman couldn’t stand it if the house belonged to anyone else and I was still a wife, a beloved helpmeet.” She breathed shallowly, and pressed her hands to her chest. “Pushed him down the stairs,” she said sullenly.

  “The king, thy murdered father’s ghost,” Essex said to Fancy. He yawned, and moved on the velvet bench, and stretched. “Where are the funeral baked meats? The old woman can’t be planning to starve us, now she’s got it all?”

  “This is unspeakable,” said young Mrs. Halloran, “to think of food, with Lionel barely cold. Fancy,” and she held out her hand. Fancy moved unwillingly, her long black skirt swinging, and young Mrs. Halloran turned to the great stairway. “My place now is with my fatherless orphaned child,” she said over her shoulder. “They must send my dinner up with Fancy’s. Anyway I believe I am going to have more asthma.”

  WHEN SHALL WE LIVE IF NOT NOW? was painted in black gothic letters touched with gold over the arched window at the landing on the great stairway; young Mrs. Halloran paused before the window and turned, Fancy toiling upward still, entangled in her skirt. “My grief,” young Mrs. Halloran said, one hand on her breast and the other barely touching the wide polished handrail, “my lasting grief. Hurry up, Fancy.” Together, young Mrs. Halloran leaning lightly upon the shoulder of her daughter, they moved out of sight down the hall, into the vastness of the upper left wing which, until so recently, they had shared with Lionel.

  Essex looked after them with distaste. “I should think Lionel would have welcomed the thought of dying,” he said.

  “Don’t be vulgar,” said Miss Ogilvie. “Even with me, please remember that we are employees, not members of the family.”

  “I am here, however, if you please,” Aunt Fanny said suddenly from the darkest corner of the hall. “You will of course have overlooked the fact that Aunt Fanny is here, but I beg of you, do not inhibit your conversation on my account. I am a member of the family, surely, but that need not—”

  Essex yawned again. “I’m hungry,” he said.

  “I wonder if it will be a proper dinner? This is the first funeral since I’ve been here,” Miss Ogilvie said, “and I’m not sure how she manages. I suppose we’ll sit down, though.”

  “No one will waste a minute’s thought if Aunt Fanny stays safely in her room,” Aunt Fanny said. “Tell my brother’s wife,” she said to Essex, “that I will join her in grief after dinner.”

  “My first funeral, too,” Essex said. Lazily, he stood up and stretched again. “Makes you sleepy. You think the old lady’s locked up the gin in honor of the day?”

  “They’ll have plenty in the kitchen,” Miss Ogilvie said. “But just a teensy one for me, thanks.”


  “It’s over,” Mrs. Halloran said. She stood behind her husband’s wheel chair, looking down onto th
e back of his head with no need, now, to control her boredom. Before Mr. Halloran had become permanently established in his wheel chair Mrs. Halloran had frequently found it difficult to restrain her face, or the small withdrawing gestures of her hands, but now that Mr. Halloran was in the wheel chair, and could not turn quickly, Mrs. Halloran was always graceful with him, standing protectively behind him and keeping her voice gentle.

  “He’s gone, Richard,” she said. “Everything went off beautifully.”

  Mr. Halloran had been crying, but this was not unusual; since he had been made to realize that he would not, now, be vouchsafed a second run at youth he cried easily and often. “My only son,” Mr. Halloran said, whispering.

  “Yes.” Mrs. Halloran forebade her fingers to drum restlessly upon the back of the wheel chair; one should not fidget in the presence of an invalid; in the presence of an old man imprisoned in a wheel chair one ought not to be impatient. Mrs. Halloran sighed, soundlessly. “Try to be brave,” she said.

  “Do you remember,” Mr. Halloran asked, quavering, “when he was born, we rang the bells over the carriage house?”

  “Indeed we did,” Mrs. Halloran said heartily. “I can have the bells rung again, if you like.”

  “I think not,” Mr. Halloran said. “I think not. They might not understand, down in the village, and we must not indulge our own sentimental memories at the expense of public opinion. I think not. In any case,” he added, “the bells are not loud enough to reach Lionel now.”

  “Now that Lionel is gone,” Mrs. Halloran said, “I am going to have to get someone to manage the estate.”

  “Lionel did it very poorly. At one time the rose garden was perfectly visible from my terrace, and now I can only see hedges. I want the hedges all cut down. At once.”

  “You are not to excite yourself, Richard. You were always a good father, and I will have the hedges trimmed.”

  Mr. Halloran stirred, and his eyes filled again with tears. “Do you remember,” he said, “I wanted to keep his curls?”

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